Dorchester Heights Revolutionary War Monument To Get $30 Million Restoration — And Why It Matters

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A 115-foot-high tower in South Boston that commemorates the evacuation of Boston by British troops in March 1776 will undergo a $30 million restoration starting this coming weekend, officials said.

The project, which is scheduled to begin Friday, September 15, is designed to restore the tower and the surrounding landscape “to its former grandeur” in time for the 250th anniversary of the British evacuation, which is March 17, 2026, according to a written statement from The National Parks of Boston.

The tower will be closed to the public during the project.

In a city awash with historical monuments, the Dorchester Heights tower isn’t as visited as many of the others. But the top of the tower provides one of the better views of the city and Boston Harbor – considerably better than the views from the narrow windows atop the much-more-visited Bunker Hill Monument in Charlestown, for instance.

But why is the tower there?

Dorchester Heights is the high ground on a neck of land sticking into Boston Harbor (in what was then the town of Dorchester) where General George Washington had Continental Army and local militia troops set up cannons pointed northwest at the town of Boston during the night of March 4, 1776.

When the British woke up the next morning – the sixth anniversary of the Boston Massacre – they encountered redoubts (temporary fortifications made largely with dirt) with cannons threatening their troops stationed in Boston and British Navy ships in Boston Harbor.

The British commander, General William Howe, at first made preparations to attack. Bad weather forced delays, however, and Howe thought better of the idea, opting instead to abandon Boston.

British Navy ships carrying soldiers, sailors, and British Loyalists sailed out of Boston Harbor on Sunday, March 17, 1776, never to return.


Fort Ticonderoga and Henry Knox

The cannons came from Fort Ticonderoga on Lake Champlain in upstate New York, which had been captured from the British by American troops under Benedict Arnold and Ethan Allen in May 1775. Colonel Henry Knox, a Boston bookseller who had an affinity for artillery, dragged 59 cannons, mortars, and howitzers with oxen, ropes, fellow soldiers, and teamsters from Fort Ticonderoga to eastern Massachusetts over the course of 70 days.

Washington knew where to put them – on the unoccupied high ground southeast of Boston known as Dorchester Heights.

It was empty because no one had taken it.

From the Revolutionary War’s beginning in April 1775 through early 1776, Dorchester Heights  “remained a kind of high, wind-blown no-man’s-land,” David McCullough writes on page 71 of his 2005 book 1776, “neither side unmindful of its strategic importance, but neither side daring to seize and fortify it.”

The night of the installation, about 1,200 American men dug through about a foot and a half of frost to build the redoubts, covered by about 800 men in arms, according to Reverend William Gordon, a pro-American cleric born in England who wrote a letter about it a month later.

Some considered the weather that night a God-send.

“The night was remarkably mild, a finer for working could not have been taken out of the whole 365,” Gordon wrote. “It was hazy below so that our people could not be seen, tho’ it was a bright moon light night above on the hills.”


Evacuation Day and St. Patrick’s Day

Evacuation Day, as the day the British left town is known, is closely linked in now-heavily-Irish Boston to the yearly celebration of the death (or birth into heaven) of St. Patrick, since both took place on March 17.

The city’s St. Patrick’s Day parade in 1874, for instance, included a large banner bearing the words “Evacuation Day, March 17, 1776,” according to a news story published in The Boston Globe that year.

In March 1938, the state legislature approved a bill directing the governor (at the time, Charles F. Hurley) to proclaim March 17 as Evacuation Day.

In March 1941, Governor Leverett Saltonstall signed a bill making Evacuation Day a holiday in Suffolk County (which includes the city of Boston), using green ink sent to his home in Chestnut Hill by a state senator from South Boston named Joseph L. Murphy.

A movement to abolish Evacuation Day (March 17) and Bunker Hill Day (June 17) as state holidays in Suffolk County in 2009 and 2010 partially succeeded – government offices are now open on those days, but state and city workers can take them as holidays or take other days off instead.


Saltonstall Irish?

Though of Yankee stock, Saltonstall claimed two Irish ancestors seven generations back, and got himself elected to the Charitable Irish Society, according to a newspaper story in January 1941. They were Owen O’Sullivan (1692-1796), born in Limerick; and his wife, Margery (Browne) O’Sullivan (1714-1801), of Cork. They were the parents of James Sullivan (1744-1808), who served as governor of Massachusetts from 1807 to his death in 1808.

The O’Sullivans dropped the O. Owen and Margery moved to Maine (then part of Massachusetts) in 1723 and later married there, according to an 1859 biography of James Sullivan.

Owen and Margery were Catholics. But Catholicism was illegal and not practiced in Massachusetts, where there were no priests. Their son James Sullivan joined the Congregational church in Biddeford as a young man.

In June 1775, Sullivan was one of three commissioners sent by the Massachusetts Provincial Congress to investigate Benedict Arnold’s conduct as commander at Fort Ticonderoga; the commissioners’ appearance and demands led Arnold to resign his Massachusetts commission and disband his regiment, as Willard Sterne Randall describes in his 1990 biography Benedict Arnold:  Patriot and Traitor. (These events were more than four years before Arnold started assisting the British, and more than five years before he switched sides.)

Sullivan served as a justice of what is now the state Supreme Judicial Court and as state attorney general before being elected governor of Massachusetts in 1807 as a Democratic-Republican (the party of Thomas Jefferson).

Governor Sullivan was the great-great-great-great-grandfather of Saltonstall, traced back on Saltonstall’s mother’s side of the family, making Saltonstall one-sixty-fourth (or 1.56 percent) Irish. Sullivan was the seventh governor of Massachusetts since independence; Saltonstall was the 55th.


Tower Finished In 1902

The tower on Dorchester Heights commemorating the British evacuation was built with state funds during the late 1890s and early 1900s. The tower was dedicated March 17, 1902, the 126th anniversary of the British evacuation.

Though the tower was built with state funds, the tower and its surrounding grounds are now under the National Parks Service. In April 1939, Governor Saltonstall signed into law a bill allowing the city of Boston to transfer Thomas Park and the Dorchester Heights tower to the federal government as a national historic monument.

The original resolve approved by the state legislature in June 1898 said the tower was meant “to commemorate the construction on said Heights, by General Washington and his little army, of a redoubt, which caused the British troops under the command of General Howe to evacuate Boston.” (The text of the bill appears in Chapter 113 of the state legislature’s resolves of 1898, pages 802-803.)

The tower was designed by Peabody and Stearns, a Boston architectural firm of the day that designed the U.S. Custom House Tower in Boston and Worcester City Hall, among other buildings.

The form of the Dorchester Heights tower is meant to call to mind a colonial meeting house steeple, atop Congregational churches built during the period before independence.

An inscription on the tower written by Charles Eliot, then the president of Harvard University, notes that the American cannons on the high ground forced the British to leave by ship – “and thenceforth Boston was free.”

“From that day to this the soil of Massachusetts has not been pressed by the foot of a foreign foe,” Governor Winthrop Murray Crane noted during the dedication in 1902.

In the keynote address that day, Henry Cabot Lodge Sr., a U.S. senator, recalled that a cannon ball from Washington’s army was displayed in the tower of the Unitarian church in Boston he attended when he was growing up, known as Brattle Street Church. (The 1772 brick church was demolished in 1872. It stood not far from where the current Boston City Hall is, as an 1829 map shows.)

He tied the events of March 1776 with world-wide influence of the American Revolution.

“The message of Dorchester Heights to those distant from the scene and to future generations mingles with the deeper voices of that memorable time when the world was entering upon new conceptions of political rights and when the old system of privilege was beginning to quiver to its base,” Lodge said.

Later in the speech, he evoked the fruits of the sacrifices made by those who dug the redoubts, which are temporary fortifications usually made largely of dirt.

“To the soldiers working in the Dorchester trenches, to the great commander riding along the toiling lines, the future was veiled in darkness as black as the March night which hung coldly over them. Yet they worked on doing the best that was in them, with faith only that they would conquer the present and that the future would repay,” Lodge said. “That future has now come and we their children turn to them in gratitude and honor their memories. Here on this spot we raise a monument which shall serve as a beacon light to guide future generations to one of the memorable scenes of our history.”


Dorchester Heights tower in South Boston, Massachusetts. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.


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